A senior food scientist and top NHS doctor have joined politicians from across parliament to demand action on the cancer risk from processed meats such as bacon and ham.
In a joint statement, they called for government action to raise awareness in a similar way to campaigns on the health dangers from sugar and fatty foods.
They cited “a growing consensus of scientific opinion” that nitrites in processed meats result in the production of carcinogenic nitrosamines, which are believed to be responsible for bowel cancer.
A 2015 report by the World Health Organisation classed processed meats as a group one carcinogen, which could cause an additional 34,000 worldwide cancer deaths a year. New analysis suggests this could equate to 6,600 bowel cancer cases in the UK annually.
Director of the Queen’s University Belfast Institute for Global Food Safety Professor Chris Elliott, senior cardiologist Aseem Malhotra and leading nutritionist Chris Gill of the University of Ulster were joined by politicians including Labour‘s deputy leader Tom Watson in making a call for action.
“There is a consensus of scientific opinion that nitrites in processed meats result in the production of carcinogenic nitrosamines – and therefore increase cancer risk for those who regularly consume traditional bacon and ham,” they said.
“For these reasons, we are concerned that not enough is being done to raise awareness of nitrites in our processed meat and their health risks, in stark contrast to warnings regularly issued regarding sugar and fattening foods.
“A united and active front is needed from policy makers, the food industry and the cancer-care community.
“We must work together to raise awareness of their risks and encourage the much wider use of nitrite-free alternatives that are safer and can reduce the number of cancer cases.”
Dr Malhotra said the failure to act on evidence of the harm from nitrites risked comparisons with the tobacco industry‘s past refusal to accept the dangers posed by cigarettes.
“Nitrites are used to cure bacon and ham, but when the meat is cooked and ingested by humans they create nitrosamines,” he said. “When it comes to nitrosamines, there are no ifs or buts – they are carcinogenic.
“Yet, despite these facts, the vast majority of bacon on sale today still contains these dangerous carcinogens. Not only this, reminiscent of the tobacco industry’s stance in the 1990s, some of those in the business of making and regulating food continue to claim that health risks from nitrite-cured meat are negligible. The evidence says otherwise.
“Government action to remove nitrites from processed meats should not be far away. Nor can a day of reckoning for those who continue to dispute the incontrovertible facts.
“The meat industry must act fast, act now – or be condemned to a similar reputational blow to that dealt to tobacco.”
Dr Malhotra rejected industry claims nitrites are essential to the preservation of processed meats, pointing to the elimination of the chemicals from Parma ham production and the use of alternative natural processes by producers including Nestle in France and Finnebrogue in the UK.
Another signatory to the statement, former Labour environment spokesperson Kerry McCarthy, urged the government to “look closely at what it can be doing to raise awareness of the risks from these chemicals and persuade the food industry to make its bacon and ham safer”.
She added: “These chemicals do not have to be in our food – and in years to come I am sure we will look back in disbelief that we allowed their use for so long.”
Also putting their names to the call for action were the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on food and health, Conservative MP Sir David Amess; Commons Environmental Audit Committee chair Mary Creagh; the vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on cancer and Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Walmsley; Conservative MEP John Proctor, a member of the European Parliament food safety committee; and the chair of the Cancer Fund for Children, Wendy McCulla.